This is a collection of largely home movies from the 40s and 50s of life in and around Detroit---one of the world's greatest cities in those days and, during WW II, perhaps the world's most important.
We see downtown streets thronged with people; automobile plants; the Vernor's Ginger Ale plant (Vernor's was, and is, the most distinctive ginger ale ever made); vibrant neighborhoods;
grand movie houses (including United Artists on the day "Anatomy of A Murder" premiered when director Otto Preminger and star Lee Remick made personal appearances); parks, inluding Belle Isle
in the Detroit River--one of the country's grandest urban parks; schools (in the late '40s the Detroit Public Schools were regarded as among the nation's best) and department stores (the downtown Hudson's was the world's tallest and country's second-largest department store).
We are meant to be reminded how far the city has fallen in the last 60 years. From a population of nearly 2 million in 1950, Detroit now has about 920,000 people. While Cleveland, St.Louis
and Pittsburgh have lost an even bigger percentage of their populations over that span,
they were never as large or iconic a city as Detroit.
These films unwittingly offer hints of why Detroit would fall so far so fast. The scenes of the auto plants cannot help but call to mind the decline of American industrial manufacturing, of course. But that is not the whole story. Detroit, in its heyday, was among the most rigidly segregated cities in the country. The only black faces you will see here (apart from an occasional pedestrian) are shown at a neighborhood celebration for an arriving (or departing--it's hard to tell) church pastor.
A film produced by the Detroit Police Department (one of the few with sound) shows the training of a young officer--"Joe". None of the police officers shown is black, even though, in the early '50s when this film was made, blacks were almost 40% of the city's population. One of Detroit's largest suburbs, Dearborn (home of Ford Motor Company) had an outspokenly segregationist mayor from the early '40s into the
'70s. In the '70s Dearborn had fewer than 20 black residents out of a population of 110,000
even though sharing a border with Detroit. Belle
Isle Park was the place where race riots began in 1943---riots that were the worst in the nation's history up to that time and required the US Army to quell in the middle of WWII.
The poisonous state of race relations in Detroit
was exacerbated by an almost all-white police force that was deeply resented in the black community. Making matters worse was the development of a vast freeway system (second only to that of Los Angeles) in the late '50s and early '60s that sliced through tightly-knit black and ethnic neighborhoods, many of which are shown in these films. On the heels of freeway construction came vicious block-busting realty companies whose tactics induced (as they were meant to do) panic selling and a flight of white working class families to the suburbs, which the freeways, of course, made easy to reach. Detroit's decline began long before the American automobile industry started to hit the skids in the early '70s. Almost 500,000 people left the city between 1950 and 1970. The race riots of 1967 supplanted those of 1943 as the nation's worst. The decimation of the U.S. auto industry after 1975 provided the final impetus to a collapse of the city that was already well underway.
These films will no doubt create a sense of nostalgia for many, especially those old enough to remember Detroit as a vital metropolis. For younger people it will cause astonishment that a city whose name has become synonomous with urban decay was once so alive. But it should also cause anger. For Detroit's decline was not inevitable. It was the product of a perfect storm of clueless public policy and private venality. The most poignant film in this collection is entitled "Detroit--A City On The Move". Produced around 1964 as part of the city's bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics, it is narrated by Jerome Cavanaugh, the city's young mayor. It extolls the city as "the most cosmopolitan in the midwest" (take that Chicago!) and a happy melting pot where all races, creed and colors
work in happy harmony. I rather think Mayor Cavanaugh was sincere. And the delusion was not his alone.
Lately Detroit has attracted intense scrutiny as a laboratory for what post-industrial America may portend. One hopes that Detroit can offer answers. It is a remarkable city, even now. And it may have much to teach us all in the years to come.